SAN FRANCISCO -- The proof exists in every corner of the 49ers' locker room, one athlete after another providing validation of the draft picks and free-agent acquisitions once dubbed disappointing and inadequate.
Look closely, Miami Dolphins. Get out your telescope, direct it toward the opposite corner of the country and focus the lens. This, despite every bitter and cynical feeling swirling in your stomach right now, could soon be you.
Last year, San Francisco finished 6-10, another disappointing season that led to the firing of its head coach and, a few months later, its general manager. This year, the Niners are a game away from winning a conference championship.
On the same weekend the 49ers are attempting to extend their own turnaround, the Dolphins are trying to begin their own. Joe Philbinarrived in South Florida on Saturday as the team's new head coach, an introduction met with guarded optimism as many fans enjoy his unfamiliar resume while sensing a slight tinge of déjà vu.
So why should this time be any different? Why should Philbin's hiring evoke any more hope than Tony Sparano or Cam Cameron, two offensive assistants who ultimately failed to succeed as head coaches? Well, nobody can answer that yet.
Whether Philbin proves to be a success will hinge on much more than his previous ability to help the Packers to an offensive output that ranked in the NFL's top 10 each of his five years as offensive coordinator. It will be based on his ability to manifest talent. To lead. To manage time. To, you know, coach.
But the point here, the point we're learning in San Francisco at this very moment, is about more than just a head coach.
By all accounts, Jim Harbaugh deserves massive credit for doing exactly what a head coach should do: He took a locker room full of solid players and turned them into a high-powered, fast-clicking machine. That's imperative. But do you know what else was imperative?
The talent that existed when he arrived.
Dolphins fans look at the 49ers' turnaround with some cynicism as they compare it to their own possibilities. After all, Miami has been here before. In 2008, they morphed from a 1-15 disaster into 11-5 divisional champs. But Miami's current situation might actually be far more like the 49ers' recent situation than their own 2008 glory.
Allow me to explain why:
When Bill Parcells arrived in South Florida, he gutted the roster like a real estate mogul flipping a beachfront condo and selling it one year later. He added a marble countertop and covered the cracks in the ceiling with a single coat of paint. The true reconstruction of the Dolphins, however, needed more time than that. More time than even Parcells wanted to spend.
Meanwhile, despite the criticism constantly aimed at general manager Jeff Ireland, the Dolphins might actually be constructing a foundation that's worth buying into.
Ludicrous? Stupid? Absurd? Maybe not.
Perception can be a funny thing in the NFL, and the perception of Ireland most certainly is that he's a butt-kissing scout who climbed his way to this position by being loyal to the powerful people while disloyal to others. While I personally disagree with that assessment, I understand why it exists as a belief.
Owner Stephen Ross, meanwhile, has stood by his guy in a way that the 49ers decided against standing by Scot McCloughlan, who was fired earlier this year. A perception existed that McCloughlan wasn't getting the job done. And now?
Now, the 49ers are perceived as the perfect blueprint for building a team. Their first-round picks (Alex Smith, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, to name a few) now are flourishing. They have 18 -- 18! -- other players who were drafted in the third round or later still on the roster. Ten of them are starters.
I'm not convinced this group of Dolphins players -- from Brandon Marshall to Reggie Bush, Jake Long to Jared Odrick, and Karlos Dansby to Cameron Wake -- can't succeed with a few more pieces. Yes, they need a quarterback (Matt Flynn, perhaps?). Yes, of course, they need a better pass rush. Those are two huge areas of need, and their importance is not unappreciated.
But as we await Philbin's arrival, as we begin to wonder what's next for the Dolphins, it seems difficult to ignore the position that he's in. Philbin isn't walking into a complete overhaul of talent. Nor was Harbaugh. They both inherited a foundation and a culture that was flawed but not one that required a stick of dynamite.
Will Philbin be the answer? Will Ireland find a quarterback, perhaps maintaining even more cohesiveness by signing Flynn as a free agent? The answers to both of those questions will go a long way in maintaining my beliefs.
But for now, in this dark period in the Dolphins' history, I find myself cautiously and unexpectedly squinting my eyes as I look into the team's future, wondering if indeed there is a small star of light waiting down the tunnel.
Is this nothing more than falsely inspired hope driven by change, whatever type of change it might be? Here's one certainty I'm comfortable stating with the fullest of certainty: We'll find out soon enough.